Derailment clean up

No river issues confirmed by lab tests, cost estimated to MRL at $3.5 million
Marlo Pronovost
Thursday, October 4, 2018

SCN photo by Ardona Robbins

Montana Rail Link (MRL) crews have remained at the site of last week’s derailment in Columbus, working to clear the mangled train cars and 4,720 tons of coal.

Impressively, train traffic resumed on the mainline approximately 30 hours after the Sept. 25 derailment, involving 40 coal cars headed to Centralia, Wash.

Eighty train cars from Wisconsin were expected to arrive at the site Wednesday, Oct. 3, and were scheduled to be loaded with the spilled coal and hauled away. MRL’s Jim Lewis explained that in derailments involving the spillage of product, twice the number of train cars are needed to haul the product away, due to the dirt and other debris introduced.

“We are making final arrangements with scrap contractors and the car owners to remove the damaged railcars from the site,” said Lewis. “We expect this work to begin within the next week.”

Vacuum trucks will be some of the last equipment on scene to completely remove all the debris. Revegetation will also occur in order “to leave it as it was before,” said Lewis.

As of Wednesday, a cause had not yet been determined. The estimated cleanup cost to MRL is $3.5 million.

Data downloaded from the train’s “black box” revealed that it was travelling 41 mph, said Lewis. The train speed limit through Columbus is 45 mph.

Also good news were the laboratory results that showed the Yellowstone River has not done been damaged by the approximated 40 to 60 tons of coal that was spilled into the river.

“The samples downriver of the site are the same as the samples upriver, meaning there was no impact to water quality,” said Lewis of the water sampling done by Pace Analytical Services.

Lewis said the river was immediately addressed at the time of the derailment, with silt fencing and netting being put in place in an effort to capture as much coal as possible.

Coal is not considered a hazardous material.

Lewis said the train consisted of 123 loaded cars, with the derailment involving cars numbered seven through 47. One car was salvaged and placed back on the tracks.

The derailment occurred at approximately 11:30 p.m. Within hours, MRL had 19 contractors, three environmental consultants and federal and state railroad inspectors on scene. Also notified were Fish Wildlife Services, Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks, Montana DEQ, the Army Corp of Engineers, Montana Disaster and Emergency Services (DES) and Stillwater County DES.

The last MRL derailment in Montana occurred in August 2017 and Lewis emphasized the company’s commitment to safety.


Columbus Fire Chief Rich Cowger last week raised the issue of the derailment blocking the crossings in Columbus for an extended period of time, which trapped some law enforcement and County DES Coordinator Carol Arkell on the south side of the tracks.

That concern surfaced again this past Tuesday morning at the Local Emergency Planning Committee. A blocked crossing would also prevent at least two of the county’s health care providers from getting to the hospital.

At one time, there had been a crossing near the Sibanye-Stillwater smelter facility for emergency crews to use in the event of the other two crossings being shut down. However, at some point, that crossing was “pulled out” by MRL, without notification to emergency services.

MRL was made aware of this immediately following the derailment and is working with emergency services on a solution.